As the Florida Orchestra gears up for its golden anniversary in the Tampa Bay area, we asked music director Michael Francis to share his thoughts on the classical lineup. Highlights include at least two orchestral and choral blockbusters, the season-opening Carmina Burana and the Verdi Requiem, plus the orchestra's commission of a prominent composer for a full-length piece to celebrate the occasion.
Carmina Burana (Oct. 6-8), Carl Orff's 1936 mesmerizing creation out of medieval verse and classical texts, gets things off to a roaring start.
"It's a spectacular way to open the 50th anniversary, one of the most iconic pieces of all," said Francis. The companion piece, Ritual Dances, from Michael Tippett's opera, The Midsummer Marriage, also touches on paganism and allows individual sections and soloists to shine.
Francis brings out the big guns with 1812 Overture (Oct. 27-29), which made Tchaikovsky a household name thanks to the 16 cannon shots symbolizing Russia's defense against Napoleon. "It's just a sensational piece of music, not just a blockbuster for the end of a pops concert," Francis said.
The orchestra pairs the dancelike rhythms of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (Nov. 3-5) with Hungarian Béla Bartók's folk-music-inspired Dance Suite and the original, uncut version of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 4 — "an extremely rare treat," Francis said.
Guest conductor Larry Rachleff steps in to lead concertmaster Jeffrey Multer in Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 (Nov. 18-19); the program includes Paul Hindemith's "quasi-neo-classicalish" Symbolic Metamorphosis, Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture and Schubert's Symphony No. 8, "another phenomenal orchestral showpiece."
Stuart Malina takes over for Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 2 (Dec. 1-3) and Prokofiev's Violin Concerto No. 2 with virtuoso Alex Kerr. "These are two of the most gloriously lyrical, melodic, sensuous and powerful, emotional, stirring pieces ever put together," Francis said.
Even the cheery holiday fare is all-you-can eat this year. Singer and songwriter Sting commands the stage at the orchestra's fundraising gala (Dec. 9), followed by three huge concert halls for Handel's Messiah (Dec. 21-23).
Jahja Ling returns to conduct Sibelius' complex Symphony No. 2 (Jan. 6-7), the same piece that led to his becoming the orchestra's second music director. Jessie Chang, Ling's wife, will perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. Maximilian Hornung plays Dvorak's Cello Concerto (Jan. 19-21). "I'm really excited about this one," Francis said. "But before that, we have two marvelous Czech pieces, (Bedrich) Smetana's Má Vlast ("My Homeland") and (Leos) Janácek's Sinfonietta — if you've never heard this piece, you won't forget it. It has, I think, 12 trumpets. It's very rarely performed because frankly it's so expensive to put on, you need so many extra musicians. But I really wanted this piece in the 50th anniversary."
Francis will conduct Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story (Feb. 16-18), a concert that includes two compositions by Leonard Bernstein, who would have turned 100 in August 2018: Preludes, Fugues and Riffs, featuring new principal clarinet Natalie Hoe; and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The concert also features Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Overture. "This is going to be an incredible concert," Francis said. "We have Hakan Hardenberger, who has been described as the greatest trumpeter on the planet — and he really is. He's a good friend of mine, but he plays in Boston, he plays in Berlin, he plays in London. He plays in all the great orchestras. He is the doyenne of trumpeters."
Hakan Hardenberger will play HK Gruber's Aerial, which the Austrian composer wrote for Hardenberger. "It's just a phenomenal showpiece for everybody," Francis said. "And for him — you'll never hear trumpet playing like it. It is spectacular."
Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 (popularly known as the New World Symphony, Feb. 23-25), takes celebration to a new level. Aside from the title piece and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, this concert features the world premiere of Triptych, by Tampa native Michael Ippolito. The orchestra commissioned Ippolito to write the piece, themed around Florida.
"He's one of North America's finest young composers," Francis said. "This is a celebration of Florida, his connection with it — with the weather, with the culture, with the people. This is a very powerful and important commission for us. "To have the center of the season, right in the middle of it, the 25-minute piece written for the orchestra to celebrate the 50th anniversary, this is very powerful, very important, and with a composer from Tampa who now has international success."
The masterworks concerts continue with A Little Night Music (March 23-25), with conductor Lynn Harrell — "one of the greatest cellists our time, along with Yo-Yo Ma" — also soloing in Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 2; and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 26 (April 14-15).
The Verdi Requiem (April 20-22), with its thundering Dies Irae chorus, brings in four vocalists and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay. The season closes out with Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 (May 4-6), a program that includes internationally known James Ehnes of Bradenton playing James Newton Howard's Violin Concerto; and Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 (May 18-20), also known as the Pastoral Symphony, with Javier Perianes performing Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2.
"The Sixth Symphony ends with this glorious sense of thanksgiving after a storm, which is of course most poignant today," Francis said. "But at the end of it there is just a gentle moment of a prayer of thanksgiving in which it just ends rather peacefully. And I just felt it would be a rather elegant way to finish the season — both the thanksgiving for what we've had over 50 years, but also just gentle reflection as we now move forward into the next 50 years."
Coffee concerts cover Classical America (Nov. 9), Best of British (Jan. 31-Feb. 1) and Musicians in the Spotlight (Jan. 10-11). Clarinetist Dave Bennett stars in a 1940s-themed kickoff to the pops concerts, Swing is the Thing (Oct. 13-15). The series includes tributes to Rodgers and Hammerstein (Jan. 12-13), film composer Marvin Hamlisch (Nov. 10-11) and Broadway (April 27-29).
The season includes nods to Pink Floyd (Feb. 2) and Prince (May 11); The Music of Star Trek and Star Wars (Feb. 9-11); and the video game Final Fantasy (Jan. 26 and 28).
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.